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Bills Targeting Protests In U.S. States Fuel Free Speech Fears

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Bills Targeting Protests In U.S. States Fuel Free Speech Fears

Protests, Freedom of Speech, Free Speech

(Reuters) – Republican lawmakers in several central U.S. states are pushing bills that would crack down on demonstrations, drawing criticism from free speech campaigners and underlining the polarization over protests in the era of President Donald Trump.

Bills have been introduced over the past month in states including North Dakota, Indiana, and Iowa that would impose measures such as harsher penalties for demonstrators who disrupt traffic, and scrapping punishment for drivers who unintentionally strike protesters blocking their vehicles.

The push for stricter laws comes as opponents of Trump have vowed to take to the streets to demonstrate against his policies on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in women’s marches on Jan. 21 in cities across the country.

While the fate of the bills was not immediately clear, supporters say they sum up the frustration some people feel about protests that get in the way of their daily lives.

“People are just kind of sick and tired of this garbage,” Nick Zerwas, a Republican state representative in Minnesota, said by telephone. “If you block a freeway, you ought to go to jail, and when you get out, you ought to get the bill.”

Zerwas has introduced two bills, one of which would increase the penalty for obstructing traffic to a gross misdemeanor, meaning offenders could face up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. The other would make protesters pay policing costs if their protests were deemed illegal or a nuisance by a court.

In Iowa, Republican state senator Jake Chapman is the lead sponsor of a bill that would make it a felony to block traffic on roads with speed limits of 55 miles-per-hour (88 km) or more. Offenders would face up to five years in jail and a $7,500 fine.

“People are really fed up with it,” Chapman said of the disruption caused by demonstrations.

He said his constituents were not against the protests as such, but that they did not want their travel affected. He said demonstrations should be held in “appropriate” places.


Free speech advocates said the proposals are worrying.

“What’s happening is a truly alarming spread of state legislation that, if passed, will have the intent or impact of criminalizing peaceful protests,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union rights group.

The bills were “unconstitutional right out of the gate,” Rowland said, adding that protests should be seen as a “success of representative democracy,” not a problem to be solved.

Gregory Magarian, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said the bills present a “major First Amendment problem,” referring to the section of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right to free expression.

“They (the lawmakers) are putting their petty ideologies over the principles of free speech,” Magarian said.

Defenders of the proposals, however, argue that they were formulated out of concern for public safety above all.

One bill by Indiana Republican state senator Jim Tomes calls for police “to use any means necessary” to clear roads of people unlawfully blocking traffic no more than 15 minutes after law enforcement learns of the obstruction.

In an emailed statement, Tomes said he had no problem with protesters who apply for permits in advance.

In North Dakota, where hundreds have been arrested during protests against a pipeline, a bill by Republican state Rep. Keith Kempenich would shield motorists from liability if they unintentionally hit a protester on a roadway, injuring or killing them.

Kempenich did not respond to requests for comment, but has said he introduced the bill after his mother-in-law was caught in a protest while driving.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” he told the Bismarck Tribune.

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

IMAGE: FILE PHOTO —  Demonstrators form a line to stop traffic on Interstate 580 during a demonstration following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in Oakland, California, U.S. November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo



  1. ray January 27, 2017

    This is how Republicans believe in the constitution by changing what ever they don’t agree with.

  2. TZToronto January 27, 2017

    The only way rights can be alientated is if people give them up. All of this is in violation of the first amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
    prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
    speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
    assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Of course, this refers Congress, but the states all have similar guarantees of rights. Allowing any restriction is a violation of these guarantees. It looks like these laws may be considered as similar to not allowing someone to yell “FIRE! in a crowded theater. While such a behavior is considered a clear and present danger, the blocking of a freeway creates an inconvenience, not a clear and present danger. I think that even a conservative Supreme Court would see these laws for what they are–attempts to limit free expression and nothing more.

    1. Rhodawmax January 28, 2017

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    2. 788eddie January 28, 2017

      Thank you, TZ.

  3. Thoughtopsy January 27, 2017

    I would like to introduce a law to limits any company or individual to $2000 TOTAL as the maximum they can contribute to a political party or politician for any single election season (and remove all Super PACs).

    Believe me… It’s not that I want to limit the Free Speech represented by money!!
    This is simply formulated out of concern for public safety above all and we fear for the safety of Democracy with that much money sloshing around. Especially when Democracy is trying to get somewhere in a hurry… we wouldn’t want that direction to be blocked by vast piles of corporate money, now would we?

    Our constituents are not against the Money as such, but they do not want their Democracy affected. We believe all Money should be held to “appropriate” amounts.
    This law would also shield citizens from liability if they sue a company for crossing the contribution limits, and accidentally injure or bankrupt it.



  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 27, 2017

    The GOP is showing us it has the same pathology as that which afflicts Donald. Donald and the GOP will raise hell if their freedoms of speech are in any way curtailed, so they embrace it in order to slur left and right whomever they please, will incite to do harm by clever word play, and promote and encourage defamation of other people’s Religion. But if the “opposition”(what a terrible way to describe those who disagree with you) mounts a protest, then the GOP wants to talk curtailing their speech.
    This ongoing hypocrisy and contradictions of right wing radicals seated in Congress and local and state offices is a menace slowly enveloping the nation, starting first in the red zones and Rust Belt. And Steve Bannon, who already appears like someone still trying to wake up, feeds a steady diet of distortions to Donald by framing the discontent of those opposed to Donald’s idiocies as the “enemy” who needs to be muzzled by threatening to silence “the opposition”.

    Sounds like Trump and his administration are gearing up for a battle against the USA and what it’s supposed to stand for by mounting a hostile “corporate” takeover of the company called America, selling bits and pieces to the hoi polloi of Trumpland.

    1. Jim Samaras January 28, 2017

      No one is looking to “muzzle” anyone! Just because your cause isn’t even noticed unless you create a disruption is no reason to complain if laws are adopted to prevent the insanity that these demonstrations bring to people who don’t care about your cause. They have rights too! The right to get to and from their destinations with no interference. Your “free speech” is welcome in a non threatening, non invasive environment. Although you’re right, nobody will notice and few will care without inciting the violence your side seems to be advocating.

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 28, 2017

        Jim, stop being the eternal child and become mature in your attitudes and expectations. Wishing that Donald and the GOP will become godly and noble is a fantasy of yours. You can’t wish for Donald and the GOP to become normal and expect it to happen overnight. You and Donald must make the effort on your own to better yourselves.

        In summary, your infatuation and obsessive attention to political matters is abnormal, and it further dehumanizes you. For now, you’re a slave to politics, and more enslaved by the godlessness of the GOP.

        1. Jim Samaras January 28, 2017

          Aaron, as you may or may not have noticed I am not nor ever have been a fan of the traditional GOP. My “infatuation” with DJT is misinterpreted as I would give the same adoration to anyone that had the same America first policies, republican or democrat. Have you noticed that the GOP is being forced a little towards center? New attitude among all legislators is on it’s way. Business as usual is anything but and will be fun to watch and listen to them all begin changing the tunes of 50 years, in a positive way for all might I add.

          I appreciate your concern for my well being! Spring is around the corner and I can get back to golf and bike riding. Much less mundane than watching news and replying to the NM.

          1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 28, 2017

            Jim, you have for nearly an entire year missed my point. I’m not particularly concerned with your political affiliation nor with that of anyone on the planet. My response to you is to refute your one-sided view of affairs, and the utter futility of hitching your wagon to any one person on the planet, or in the galaxy. What I’ve been saying and implying over and over to you is that an affinity to man-made concepts misdirects you from our purpose as humans.
            God didn’t create you just to be a political servile creature, nor to get bogged down in the mundane philosophies/ideologies that distract you from your purpose of carrying forth an ever-advancing civilization. Yet, you persist in directing your attention away from that goal by continuing to focus on personality and results, rather than focus on developing relationships with every human being on the face of the planet.

            Since you don’t have that focus, that ipso facto means you’ve severed your connection with God, and reattached your link to politics and personalities. The former leads to enrichment and depth, while politics/personality adoration leads to shallow waters of despair with no visible outcomes that redound to all, north and south of the borders, whether in the Far East, the Middle East, or Africa and the Americas.

            Learn to open up and let your vision be world-embracing, and not narrowly-confined as required by the myopic perspective that defines a “conservative” outlook, whether of the East or of the West.

          2. Jim Samaras January 28, 2017

            I’ve not missed your point! I’ve seen the results of hand holding and singing Kumbaya under the Obama administration and until the rest of the world looks at it that way I’ll be stuck looking at things from more of a pragmatic viewpoint. Human nature is as such that disallows the harmony of which you yearn for. While I admire and appreciate your faith in God Aaron I have no such regard for the human race in general.

          3. 788eddie January 28, 2017

            We did very well under President Obama, and we would have done much better (economically) if he had the cooperation (and not total obstruction) of congress, resulting in the absolutely lowest rating of any Congress in our nation’s history.

  5. Sundance98 January 28, 2017

    Up is down, right is wrong, left is right, male pattern baldness does not exist, Cialis and Viagra are necessary vitamins, smoke is actually good to breathe, America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, there is no such thing as peaceful assembly, the Hammer and Cycle is the same as the Stars and Stripes, Every City requires a Border Guard to be safe…………and we will leave to your imagination the 1000 other NEW LAWS and NEW SPEAK we can expect in the next 93 days….. Please America and the World watch the following: “1984”, “Brazil”, “Blade Runner”, “They Live”, “The Matrix”, “Three Days of the Condor” and “Terminator”……and you can kind of get the idea…….how it all works.

  6. Thomas Martin January 28, 2017

    And the fascists continue to roll.

  7. itsfun January 28, 2017

    Freedom of speech and the right to protect are wonderful freedoms we have. But where is it written that protestors have the right to burn, break windows, loot businesses, throw rocks and whatever at cops, etc.? People harming others and destroying property are not rights but are crimes. People doing these things should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    1. 788eddie January 28, 2017

      It is interesting to note that during the Women’s Protest in Washington, D.C., some people were arrested for damaging property. It later came out that some of these “demonstrators were plants form conservative organized groups who were planted to incite and create disruptions to help mar the peaceful demonstrations.

      Somehow, I’m not surprised.

      1. itsfun January 28, 2017

        Doesn’t surprise me either.

    2. jointerjohn January 29, 2017

      It isn’t written that anyone can do those things, and that is not what this story is about. Nobody said anything about property damage or looting. These proposed laws are aimed at curtailing assembly.


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